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Review commentary by Jeremy Wilson on Lawrence, the Uncrowned King of Arabia by Michael Asher

(London, Viking, 1998)

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Chapter 2: Dominus Illuminatio Mea
Schooldays, 1896-1905 (10 pages)

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As Lawrence's authorised biographer I have long been aware that to some people the question of Lawrence's sexuality has much more than biographical interest. It has what I can only describe as a 'political' aspect. This political dimension is, to my mind, regrettable - because some of the protagonists have very strong feelings about it. That hinders objective discussion and on some occasions even leads to abusive personal comments.
    Briefly, in the campaign for equal treatment of homosexuals (a campaign, incidentally, whose primary objective I agree with) Lawrence has long been cited by some commentators as an example of a famous historical figure who was also homosexual. However, this interpretation has to accommodate the fact that in Seven Pillars and elsewhere Lawrence describes what amounts to male-rape, in an incident that occurred at Deraa in November 1917. Moreover, recent research on male rape and its consequences suggests that the behavioral abnormalities that Lawrence exhibited after WWI were of the kind that could well be expected in a male-rape victim.
   Hardly anyone, heterosexual or homosexual, approves of rape. Therefore, those who wish to portray Lawrence as a homosexual role-model do not find it easy to accept that he might, instead, be an example of a man whose life was devastated by the psychological consequences of rape - and in particular rape by a homosexual or bisexual male.
   One result, in recent years, has been what one might describe as a counter-attack by those who still wish to portray Lawrence as homosexual, even though less partisan authors such as myself and the psychiatrist John Mack have not found evidence to support that conclusion. First, attempts have been made to "prove" that the male-rape at Deraa did not take place, and to suggest that Lawrence's accounts of it were the fantasy of a homosexual masochist. Secondly, some of those who do accept that the Deraa episode took place have tried very hard to suggest that it was irrelevant to the question of Lawrence's sexual orientation because, they say, they can show that he was homosexual before the incident at Deraa. In support of this conclusion it is necessary for such people to deny that there was anything sexually significant about Lawrence's known admiration, in his last years as an undergraduate, of a girl called Janet Laurie.
   In my view, no serious biographer of Lawrence can nowadays be unaware of this highly charged political scenario and the distortions that it has caused in recent media comment. Maybe Asher did not think about it very deeply. For whatever reason, in this book he adopts, uncritically, the arguments of the counter-attack.
   I will discuss these arguments at the points where Asher sets them out. As a general comment, however, I would say that it has thus-far proved impossible for the counter-attackers to make a case that stands up to serious examination. With regard to the pre-Deraa period (relevant to these early chapters in Asher's book), a major difficulty for them is the lack of evidence. In part, this is because of the huge constraints on outward sexual behaviour in British society before WWI, which could effectively conceal the sexual orientation of an unmarried young man. Another problem is that Lawrence spent most of the period between graduating from Oxford and the outbreak of war working at an archaeological dig in Syria where no European women were present. Next page


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